Missouri Football Strike Proves Athletes Are Our Universities’ Most Valuable Commodities

The following post originally appeared on Above the Law Redline on November 8, 2015. However, since it is one of the most important sports stories of 2015, we are reprinting it. Enjoy!

Late Saturday night, while most Americans were fully embedded in their couch’s butt groove after a day of some of the year’s best college football games, a group of athletes decided to embark on the most important goal line stand of their lives. At 9:14 p.m., the University of Missouri’s Legion of Black Collegians announced that the school’s black football players would no longer suit up until school president, Tim Wolfe, stepped down. Their statement read:

The athletes of color on the University of Missouri football team truly believe ‘Injustice Anywhere is a threat to Justice Everywhere.’ We will no longer participate in any football related activities until President Tim Wolfe resigns or is removed due to his negligence toward marginalized students’ experiences. WE ARE UNITED!!!!!

As many news outlets have now reported, racial tension has been brewing for months at Missouri after the administration failed to respond to several racist incidents involving verbal abuse directed at black students. The situation boiled over when someone recently smeared a swastika in feces on a dorm’s bathroom. Now, a black graduate student is on a hunger strike and the universities’ most-prized athletes are on a football strike.

According to my former colleague David Morrison, 42 of the 64 players on Missouri’s depth chart are black and at this point they have the full support of the coaching staff and athletic department.

This, of course, should not come as a surprise, because without Missouri’s black football players, there is no football team. And without a football team there is no money.

This football strike is about a lot of complex and deeply divisive issues that unfortunately are not unique to Missouri — go ask Yale. From a sports standpoint, though, this strike highlights just how valuable Division I “revenue-generating” athletes truly are.

How many Americans, let alone ESPN viewers and Deadspin readers, knew anything about the racial tensions on this large campus? Who knew that a major public institution’s administration could be so tone deaf, despite sitting a short drive away from Ferguson? I sure didn’t.

But when the football team gets involved, it is a whole other story. Division I football and basketball teams — like it or not — are our universities’ brand ambassadors. The buck literally begins and ends with them and they attract significant media attention.

We already know that head football coaches wield more power than university presidents. They also make a lot more money.

At Missouri, head coach Gary Pinkel will earn about $3.77 million this year. The embattled university president? Only $450,000. Pinkel actually earned double Wolfe’s salary in bonuses alone last season after the Tigers advanced to the SEC title game and notched a win in the Citrus Bowl. This season, Pinkel can earn up to $725,000 in bonuses, with his assistants in line for significant raises too.

However, these bonuses, along with ticket sales, merchandise revenue, and SEC Network/ESPN dollars all depend upon the players actually playing the games.

Next weekend, Missouri is slated to play BYU at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. That is a potential for 79,000 seats left empty if the strike continues. Those empty seats and lost revenue should serve as a frightening wake up call to university administrators and the NCAA. Without the athletes, the whole system collapses.

Legally, there is not much Missouri or any other school can do. Theoretically, the athletes are breaching their contracts, aka scholarships, by not playing. However, the schools can never actually make that argument. Otherwise, they would be admitting that the athletes are employees under contract to perform athletic services in exchange for tuition, room, and board.

Thanks to the NCAA’s “student-athlete” charade, there is no way to stop this strike aside from accepting the PR nightmare of revoking scholarships. Assuming Missouri’s athletes truly came to play school (thanks, Cardale), then these students are simply choosing to not participate in their extracurricular activity anymore. If the school and the coaching staff lose significant money in the process, well, that’s the double-edged sword the NCAA has finely sharpened by creating a system in which football players are the most valuable commodities on campus.

UPDATE – Not only did Wolfe end up resigning, but Missouri state reps then introduced an ill-fated bill to revoke athletic scholarships if players went on strike ever again. Stay classy Missouri.

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